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Honoring Rosa Parks: Moving from Symbolism to Action

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Fifty years ago today, on December 1, 1955, at 6 p.m. in the evening, Rosa Louise Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She took her normal seat toward the front of the “colored only” section. At the third stop, the bus was full, leaving two or three white men to stand. The driver noticed the white men standing and demanded that Ms. Parks give up her seat so one of the men could sit.

Understanding that her livelihood and even her life were in danger, Ms. Parks refused to give up her seat. The driver then called the police and Ms. Parks was arrested, tried, and convicted for violation of state and local segregation laws. After word of this incident reached the African-American community, 50 African-American leaders gathered and organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott to protest segregation on public buses. The boycott lasted for 381 days, until the local ordinance segregating African Americans and whites on public buses was lifted.

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat that day not because she was tired, not because she was looking for recognition, and not knowing that her actions would spark a movement. Instead, she refused to give up her seat because she had courage, passion and an extraordinary commitment to end the injustices endured by her community. In doing so she showed all of us that you do not need to hold political office, nor be wealthy, nor famous to change the world.

Today we mark the anniversary of that moment. However, for the first time, we mark the anniversary without Ms. Parks in our physical presence. Since her passing, elected officials, business leaders, civil rights leaders, friends and family members have testified to the inspirational power of her life at funerals around the country. She became the first woman to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol building, and today the President will sign legislation that will make her the first African American to be honored with a full-sized statue in the U.S. Capitol.

However, as we pay tribute through the symbolism that she is due, we should also assure that we follow in the footsteps of Ms. Parks and move from symbolism of the moment to action against modern threats to our collective civil rights. Today, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has been called the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress, faces reauthorization in 2007. If Congress fails to act, a number of key provisions designed to protect against the policies Ms. Parks stood up against under Jim Crow will expire.

While Ms. Parks and others may have defeated Jim Crow, less overt but equally effective tactics continue to be used to disenfranchise voters. Each of the last two Presidential elections has been muddied by charges that African-American voters were intentionally disenfranchised. In Florida in 2000, civil rights workers charged that thousands of qualified African-American voters' names were purged from the voter rolls when the state was trying to keep unqualified felons from voting in the Presidential election. In Ohio in 2004, activists charged that voters were turned away from the polls because of long lines and broken voting machines in districts with large minority populations. And recently, senior Justice Department officials overrode a team of lawyers and analysts and backed a Georgia voter identification measure that would be “retrogressive,” or in other words have the affect of reducing African-American access to the polls.

Ms. Parks herself engaged in action to assure that she was able to exercise her right to vote. In 1943, 12 years prior to her refusal to move on the bus in Montgomery, Rosa Parks went to register to vote in Alabama. Because of the Jim Crow laws of the time, African Americans had to pass a literacy test in order to register. Ms. Parks took the test, was told she passed and that she would receive her voting card in the mail. The card never came.

When she went back to take the test a second time, officials told her that she had failed the test and denied her the ability to see her results. In 1945 Ms. Parks went back a third time to register to vote. She again took the literacy test and again was told that she passed and that her card would be mailed. This time, however, Ms. Parks would not be denied; she stayed and hand-copied all of the questions and answers to that test to make sure that she would get her card and if not, she would have proof that she did in fact pass the test.

Ms. Parks finally received her card, but when she went to vote the poll workers ordered her to pay a poll tax of $1.50, not just for that year but for every year that she had been eligible to vote. At the age of 32, that amount came out to $16.50. In 1945 that was quite a lot of money for a young seamstress to pay. Undeterred, Ms. Parks opened her pocket-book, paid the money and cast her vote. She voted in every subsequent election in her lifetime.

The fact that over 60 years after Ms. Parks courageously stood up against obstacles to voting imposed under Jim Crow and over 40 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, similar, less overt barriers continue to exist only further cements the notion that the Voting Rights Act not only should be reauthorized, but should be strengthened to assure that years from now these modern barriers to voting are as reviled as those overt barriers imposed under Jim Crow. Thus, today, as we grant Rosa Parks the symbolism that her courageous actions are due, we must also memorialize her life and struggle for civil rights through collective action, which assures that the rights that Ms. Parks struggled to achieve are preserved.

Nicholas Rathod is the Senior Manager of State and Regional Affairs at the Center for American Progress.

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